"A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all torn by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to millions he gave release and delight."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Ring,” in The New Republic, Oct. 11, 1933
After years of battling alcoholism, Ring Lardner—sportswriter-turned-fiction writer—died on this day 80 years ago, at age 48, of a heart attack in East Hampton, Long Island. That death devastated younger friend—and drinking buddy—F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used him as a partial model for the character Abe North in his 1934 novel, Tender Is the Night.
“I am a woman and my business is to hold things together,” says Nicole Diver, wife of Abe’s good friend, the psychiatrist Dick Diver, in that book.
“My business is to tear them apart,” North responds—and so he does.
Biographer Otto Friedrich notes that Lardner’s first published short story involved “defeat, humiliation and failure.” That melancholy was part of the tie between Lardner and Fitzgerald—and, of course, between Dick Diver and Abe North.
“Dick’s lungs burst for a moment with regret for Abe’s death, and his own youth of ten years ago,” writes Fitzgerald—and that moment mixes the nostalgia for a lost way of life that had become the novelist’s in recent years, as well as his own sense of the similar fate awaiting himself, only seven years later—also dead in his 40s, after two decades of alcoholism.
Oddly enough, the great kindness that Fitzgerald and other contemporaries felt in Lardner are often absent in his short fiction (see, for instance, my posts on the short story “Haircut” and his epistolary novel, You Know Me, Al). That work has influenced numerous American writers over the years, including those reluctant to acknowledge the debt (Ernest Hemingway), others frank in doing so (Terry McMillan) and yet others where it is so obvious that denial is useless (Elmore Leonard).
I first read Lardner when I was in high school, and over the years, when I’ve had the chance to read a stray story here and there, I’m still surprised by how fresh he still sounds. Now, according to a recent review by Allen Barra in The Daily Beast, he’s reaching another form of literary Valhalla by having a collection of his stories and other writings edited by Ian Frazier for the Library of America series.